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open adoption advice

How Can We Open Up Our Adoption When We’ve Been Hurt So?

Question  from a reader asking for open adoption advice

Dear Lavvie: We want an open adoption to avoid a future search for birth parents by our daughter one day, and we don’t want her to have to walk this path alone or to feel like she has to do it behind our backs or without our support.

Your book pushed us to think about our triggers and boundaries. We had a failed adoptive placement prior to adopting our daughter in which we returned a child after 2½ months with us. It was highly traumatic.

We went on to adopt our daughter, now 5, and we are working through our issues. We would like to have a more open adoption someday that includes contact with her birth family. We talk openly and positively with our daughter about adoption and her birth family, and are figuring out how to make the move from Box 3 (low contact + high openness) to Box 4 (high contact + high openness).

How can we navigate our triggers and form appropriate boundaries, in light of the trauma we experienced and the issues we’ve had with a birth parent?

(One example of an issue is that we do not post photos online of our children, but our daughter’s birth parent is posting photos on an unsecured homepage. We were furious because we’d asked please not post photos.)

My response: It’s understandable that you would have triggers from a failed placement. And it’s commendable that you’re willing to do your part to heal that trauma. Two things will come of that.

First, healing! Find a trauma-informed therapist in your area (see this excellent state-by-state guide to adoption-competent therapists compiled by Adoption Today magazine) and have that person help you process and release. As I’ve heard said, “what we can feel, we can heal” — which means you’re already primed for healing simply by acknowledging your pain and being willing to release it (sometimes holding on to pain seems like a good idea but really it’s not).

In addition, you’re already doing well in knowing that this past trauma may be affecting your ability to open up. You’re mindful of what may be influencing your openness-in-adoption decisions, which is a strong step forward. [see also Kellie’s comment below, her first point.]

The second benefit  that will come is knowing that healing comes. This means that if/when your daughter is faced with her own grieving and healing one day, you’ll be in position to help her understand that healing can come, will come. You’ll be able to uphold that for her from your own profound experience.

At this time, I would say don’t push Box 4 (but also, don’t push it away). Focus first on cultivating openness within your home, your heart, your relationship with your daughter. This will give you space and time to heal from your wounds and deal with your triggers. As you attune to her long-term needs for her roots, her story, her identity, this very opening to her is what will transform your fear of contact into a desire for contact –the shift into Box 4 that you want to want to make (<== that’s not a typo, wanting to genuinely want something.).

The focus on open-heartedness, on being cautiously vulnerable, will also help make boundary-setting easier. When boundaries are set from a place of love for your daughter rather than fear of hurting your own tender spots, they are more likely to be more functional, effective, appropriate.

Regarding the photos, that sounds like a conversation that needs to be had [please see Kellie’s comment, her second point, below]. You can say to the birth parent (let’s pretend we’re dealing with a mother named Kayla) the same thing you might say to a sister-in-law or aunt who posts pictures after you’ve expressly asked them not to. Firmly yet gently, I would say something like,

Kayla, do you realize that even after we asked you not to, you posted photos of our daughter online? We have reasons why we don’t want pictures made public, and we’re happy to tell you why we think it’s in Daughter’s best interest to have this policy. When you go against our reasonable wishes, it harms our relationship. I’m guessing that you WANT to have a trusting relationships with us, with our daughter, so that we can more fully include you in our lives. When you break our trust, it makes us want to hold back and not even give you the pictures because we think they’ll be misused. Isn’t that the opposite of what you want?

Sometimes I take the tone I would use with a loved one (say, my son or daughter) and use it with the birth parent [please see Kellie’s and Amy’s comments below]. By this I mean even if I’m furious, my goal is not to discharge my anger but to help them find their own reason to change their behavior. To teach them how to treat me instead of to punish them for not doing so.

Dear Readers, what say you?

See also: How to Set Adoption Boundaries


About this Open Adoption Advice Column

  • Rather than tell people what they should do, instead I say what *I* might do were I in the asker’s position.
  • I reserve the right to call on others to help with answers from time to time, to tap into group wisdom.
  • Please understand I am not trained as a therapist. Please do not rely on words in this space to make your own major or minor decisions.

As always, readers are encouraged to weigh in thoughtfully and respectfully. I ask everyone to remember that this is a teaching endeavor rather than a shaming endeavor, and that we aim to bring light rather than heat. It’s my belief that people do the best they can with what they have to work with, and our goal is to give folks more to work with.

Send in your own question for possible inclusion.

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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10 Responses

  1. Good advice and I like the fact that you’ve told them to get to Box 4 in their own time vs. pushing themselves into Box 4 just because they think they should be in Box 4.

    It’s so hard not to transfer our feelings from another experience into our current experience. To see them as two separate, unconnected entities.

  2. Great advice, especially not pushing themselves too hard because they think they should. I also like the advice on posting pictures online. This is an increasingly widespread issue and your response can be used for a variety of situations.

  3. I agree the first/natural/birth parents should respect your wishes regarding the pictures. That being said, I wonder if they do not respect your wishes because you have not shown them respect?
    I understand you are the legal parents, and with that privilege you also hold all of the power in the relationship. When that power is used to punish someone (maybe in lieu of the other couple who took their child back), it’s going to cause hard feelings and a desire to push back. The only way they can do that is by crossing boundaries. It is the only “power” they have, and people will often do anything to keep their power even if it causes them to lose contact with their child. Sometimes that may even be seen as preferable to the stress of navigating a difficult relationship. What will happen in the end, however, is a “he said she said” situation when your child gets older. You will each have your “side” to tell your daughter, and you may end up forcing her to choose a “side”. That’s not fair to her.
    Regarding Lori’s advice to speak to them as you would your daughter or son ; be careful not to sound condescending. It will only make things worse.

    1. To be quite honest (and I agree with Kellie) if my daughter’s amom had spoken to me “like a child” I would have been highly offended. Many times, we (birthparents) already feel “inferior” and to be spoken down to would have been highly offensive and hurtful, even if that’s not intended. I think I understand what Lori means (you speak to your children firmly and with love) but you do have to watch the tone! lol

      Just my 2 cents 🙂

    2. Kellie, you make some excellent points, and thanks for doing so.

      1. Your first point underscores the importance of mindfulness. When people know WHY they do what they do, they are in position stop reacting from a hurt place and instead respond thoughtfully, empathetically.

      2. Your second point about the inherent power imbalance is also insightful. In respectful and healthy relationships, people don’t try to disempower others (it’s against one’s own self-interest, as you state and as I drew a crude drawing here).

      3. And point taken about condescension in talking with birth parents. As Amy guessed, I mean to say speak to them as insiders, as loved ones, rather than as outsiders, as little ones (my kids are getting big!). And yes, we must be very intentional with the tone.

      With everything, really.

    3. Absolutely agree with Kellie! I would NOT speak to them as if they were a son or daughter who I was trying to “teach” rather than “punish.” Speak to them with respect and remember that you don’t control them. You don’t even control your daughter. Sometimes people do things we don’t like. Posting photos doesn’t harm your daughter (unless it also has her physical address, where to find her). Too often adoptive parents play the “in my child’s best interest” line when really it is about THEIR interest and comfort level.

      In general, my experience as an adoptive mom has been that when my buttons get pushed and I am furious, it is because I am taking it personally and forgetting that the people on the other side of my daughter are adults who get to make their own decisions. I may not agree with those decisions. I may not like them. Those decisions might even violate some prior agreed-upon contract that we have made. But that’s what happens when you are in a family with other adults. You don’t get your way, and you just have to find a way to take care of yourself and make the best of it. Sometimes it is really hard!

  4. My phone is being a snot and preventing me from commenting. Sorry for the delay!

    I want to start by congratulating this couple for choosing openness despite a traumatic experience with adoption. Usually this is enough to solidify one’s resolve in closing contact and instead choosing a road that initially is easier. The fact they are so mindful is amazing and inspiring. Bravo.

    I’ve been thinking about the photo issue. Initially, I would have approached them the way I approach my students, but I think Kellie’s point is very important and a lot more productive. A conversation that explores why the birthparents insist on posting photos in order to understand what their rational is is important. It may be control. It may be that they believe this couple is simply being unreasonable. It may be a difference in values. Either way, until they come to an understanding nothing will change (other than resentment festering) and the opposite of what both parties want may be the result.

  5. If the child was 5 years old at adoption, I’m guessing she was adopted from foster care, like my kids.
    Losing my parental rights was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever gone through, worse than the abuse from my children’s father. All these people got paid to work together and take my children away from me by nitpicking at every little mistake I’d made, and not giving me credit for all the things that made me a good mother.

    My children’s adopters asked me to respect them and to agree not to share any pictures they gave me with family or friends. When I asked why, that ended the discussion. First of all, I don’t respect them. I can’t respect them. They’re opportunistic vultures who waited on the sidelines cheering for injustice. Second of all, putting restrictions on me showing off pictures of my kids shows they feel entitled to be in control, they OWN my kids now, and they don’t want me to even be able to still feel like a proud Mommy, not even for a minute. They object when I even show off pictures that I took of my kids way before they were even in foster care. They want to make it like I never was a Mommy, they want to reduce me to just being a birth thing, disposable, that they can hurt and humiliate on whim. I miss my kids, I want to see pictures, but I guess I’m just not willing to degrade myself enough to make their adopters happy.

    1. Denelle, it sounds horrible what you went through. Suffering abuse and getting only blame and not credit. I’m sorry you’ve had such a hard road.

      I’d like to explain another side of a “no pix on the Internet” policy. We have tried to keep our kids from having any kind of digital footprint. Perhaps that’s folly, but we are hoping to keep them from being googlable by future employers, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc. as a means of protecting them. For that reason, WE don’t post pictures, and those close to us (including birth family members) respect that and also don’t post pictures.

      Of course, it would be a double standard and perhaps a mark of ownership for the adoptive parents to do one thing and ask birth family members to do another.

      No one should erase the fact that you are a Mommy. Not only for your sake, but for the sake of your children. I’m sorry that you feel you are treated as an outsider. To the degree the adoptive parents can respect and include you (dependent on clear and respectful communication from all sides), they can better help the children integrate their biology and their biography.

      As a aside, I don’t get the sense that the asker adopted from foster care. Instead, I believe she and her husband adopted an infant through a private agency 5 years ago.

      I wish you well. Like I said, I’m sorry it’s so hurtful.

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